Prologue Magazine

The 1930 Census in Perspective

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2 | Genealogy Notes

By David Hendricks and Amy Patterson


The Historical Census

The Constitution of the United States (Article 1, section 2) mandates that an "actual Enumeration" of the nation's population be made at least every ten years so that "representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers." The inclusion of a recurring census in the Constitution marked the first time that a nation made an enumeration the basis of representative government. In essence, the census connects the American people to their government.

The founders recognized that the new nation would expand both its borders and its population. They anticipated the migration of Americans westward across the continent. Thomas Jefferson believed that the new nation had "room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation," and described the American continent as an expanding "empire of liberty."1 As the nation grew in size, it would also grow in population, both through natural increase and immigration. The founders' stipulation that the census of population be conducted every ten years anticipated this geographic and demographic dynamism. Counting the population every decade, they believed, would allow political representation to be reapportioned regularly and fairly. Starting in 1790, the United States has conducted a census of its population every decade, and reapportionment has followed almost every count.2

Yet the census is more than just a head count used to divide political representation. The census provides a snapshot of the nation at ten-year intervals and illustrates the issues most relevant to Americans at a given time. Genealogists and other researchers often notice that no two censuses schedules are exactly alike. For example, in the first census taken in 1790, enumerators asked for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household that fit the following categories: free white males over age sixteen, free white males under sixteen, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. These questions reflected the interests of the fledgling American government. Concerned with Britain's continued presence on the North American continent, Congress was keen to evaluate the nation's military potential, and hence determine the number of free white males aged sixteen and older. They were unconcerned with the age of people in all other categories.

In 1820, by contrast, the census did sort women and "free colored persons" according to age, and, reflecting a growing interest in the nation's expanding economy, also asked about the number of persons engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufacture. By the mid-nineteenth century, social reformers had grown concerned over the increase in poverty and dislocation caused by urbanization and industrialization. Hence the 1850 census included "social statistics" questions about taxes, schooling, crime, and "pauperism."3 Later nineteenth-century censuses asked questions about language and country of origin, reflecting the increasing number of immigrants, as well as American anxiety over the social effects of this immigration. Questions asked on the census provide a lens through which to view important economic, social, and political changes in America.

In the nineteenth century, the government also conducted a slew of social and economic censuses in conjunction with the census of population. It conducted censuses of crime, pauperism, and benevolence, censuses of mortality, education, libraries, religious organizations, mining, agriculture, transportation, fishing, and manufactures, among others.4 The economic censuses provide statistical snapshots of the changing American economy. Sadly, the individual schedules for most of these censuses have been destroyed, although the published aggregated data still exist and provide a valuable resource for researchers. Fortunately, at the same time the government conducted more and varied special censuses, it also increased the number and scope of the questions asked by the census of population, increasing the value of those schedules for researchers.

The 1930 Census: Twentieth-Century Optimism

By the early twentieth century, the logistical challenges involved in collecting such a large amount of information grew increasingly difficult. Commenting on the number of new questions proposed for the upcoming 1930 census of population, bureau Acting Director Joseph A. Hill noted, "we are already close to the limit . . . to the amount and kind of information which can be obtained through a census, and the limit to the amount of detail that can be carried on the punch cards and successfully tabulated within the census period."5 Others at the bureau shared Hill's concerns, and as a result, the 1930 count was the last census that asked all respondents to answer detailed questions on topics such as language, employment, and veteran status. As such, it is considered the last of the "traditional" censuses.

Like those before it, the 1930 census reflected the government's interest in collecting specific kinds of data about its population. In September 1928, Hill noted that "the selection of questions is a matter of great importance," particularly as the "new questions which various organizations or individuals want to have included in the next census make a long list." Hill worried that there was "a grave danger of overloading the census with detail." He suggested that in order to keep the length of the census manageable, "some of the questions already on the schedule must be eliminated to make room for the new ones."6 While the 1930 census was very similar in content to the census taken a decade earlier, there were some significant changes. The bureau reduced the number of questions dealing with immigration and asked new questions on consumer items, home values, unemployment, and veteran status. In some cases, as in the new requirement that veterans identify which war they had served in, the questions merely reflected the government's interest in such information for accounting purposes. Other questions, however, reveal broader social trends.

The 1930 census reflected the emerging values of early twentieth-century America, in particular the growing influence of consumerism and mass culture. The 1930 census included for the first time a question regarding a consumer item. Respondents were asked whether they owned a "Radio set," a luxury that had become increasingly common in the 1920s. As historian Roland Marchand has argued, in the early decades of the twentieth century, American business and political leaders viewed radio as a source of cultural "uplift" for the population as well as a valuable medium for advertisement of mass-produced goods. The inclusion of a question on radio ownership reflected this new interest in the possibilities of consumer items and methods of mass communication.7

Similarly, the 1930 census was the first to instruct enumerators to designate one member of a household as the "homemaker." The inclusion of this designation reflected the fact that the term had taken on a new meaning in the early twentieth century. In American high schools, girls now took courses in "domestic science"; a trend noted by Robert and Helen Lynd in Middletown, their classic social study of 1920s Muncie, Indiana.8 The new field of "home economics" revalued household chores as a "science" to be studied and mastered. Yet this new emphasis on homemaking as science also reflected an emerging consumer culture. As historian Ruth Schwartz Cowen has shown, advertisers increasingly portrayed homemaking as a profession in an effort to court female consumers.9

The bureau also modified its questions regarding marriage. On the 1930 census, respondents were asked for their age at their first marriage, a detail that was thought to have interesting social implications. "It is generally believed that the average age of marriage in this country is rising," one statistician wrote, "but if so, how to explain the fact that the 1920 census found that 10 per cent more of the young women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five years were married than was the case in 1900?"10 In this case, the 1920 census figures revealed a trend that had yet gone unnoticed by many social commentators; many women and men now found their mates in the emerging "youth culture" of high schools and colleges, which served to lower the average age of first marriage.11 The perception that young people were delaying marriage grew out of this emerging youth culture, and its individualist ethos as embodied in the 1920s image of the female "flapper." Starting in the late nineteenth century, a growing number of women attended college and entered the work force, usually teaching or social work, and eschewed marriage. The "new woman" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became a recognized, if often criticized, icon in American culture. In the 1920s, this image of the new woman merged with a more sexualized, urbane image of the flapper. Although young women in the 1920s were actually more likely to marry than their older counterparts, social conservatives continued to fear that women's expanded educational and career ambitions would cause them to postpone marriage and childbearing.

The question on the age at first marriage, as well as other questions new to the 1930 census, held exciting possibilities for adherents to the idea that societal trends could be studied, quantified, and rationalized. In the early 1930s, statistician C. Luther Fry wrote that "if analyzed, [data from the census] should be of the greatest value in helping to deal with a multitude of social problems. This is a task that should commend itself to everyone interested in the scientific study of human society."12 For example, the 1920 census had asked whether a respondent owned or rented their home; the 1930 form also asked for the home value or monthly rental. Fry explained that this information, when "analyzed by small areas" would "reveal the economic level of different neighborhoods."13 This data would reveal centers of poverty and wealth, and trends in either direction. The adherence to scientific method as a way to understand social problems would remain a hallmark of the twentieth century.

Race and Immigration in the 1930 Census

Although some of the questions on the 1930 census illustrated twentieth-century optimism regarding the potential for science to explain society's ills, others reveal the persistence of older racial views. For example, instructions to census enumerators explained that a person who had both "White and Negro blood was to be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood." This categorization of mixed race individuals as "Negro" based on the existence of any black ancestry reflected the bureau's continued reliance on nineteenth-century racial categories.

By contrast, racial guidelines regarding Native Americans were less stringent. Enumerators were told that someone part Native American and part African American should be listed as "Negro" unless the Indian blood predominated and the person was "generally accepted as an Indian in the community." Someone with both white and Native American ancestry was to be listed as "Indian," unless the percentage of Indian blood was very small and the person was "regarded as White in the community." Hence the bureau decreed that Native American ancestry did not preclude an individual from being "white," while African American ancestry did. The instructions to enumerators thus reflected an acceptance of a racial hierarchy, with white at the top, black at the bottom, and Native Americans occupying a hazy area in the middle.14

The 1930 census also contained unusual instructions regarding Mexican Americans. Enumerators were instructed that all persons born in Mexico, or whose parents were born in Mexico, should be listed as Mexicans, and not under any other racial category. However, this was an anomaly of the 1930 census. In prior censuses, and in 1940, enumerators were instructed to list Mexican Americans as white.15

Meanwhile, the number of questions about immigration had been reduced for the 1930 census. A question about naturalization required respondents to indicate only whether they were naturalized or not and did not require them to report what year it had occurred, as the 1920 and earlier censuses had. This shift away from detailed questions about citizenship status reflected changing immigration patterns in the United States. As a result of two immigration restriction laws passed in 1921 and 1924, the number of foreigners entering America had declined precipitously. These laws had grown out of increasing nativism, racism, and fear of foreign influence, fears that had increased during and after World War I. Moreover, those who did immigrate were often subjected to various "Americanization" programs that sought to fit them into American culture through ridding them of their native customs and habits. The depression of the 1930s would reduce the rate of immigration even further, making data about immigration status even less important to the American government.

The Unemployment Schedule

The 1930 census also included a separate schedule on which statistics concerning unemployment were collected. Interestingly, the decision to include the new unemployment schedule was made well in advance of the stock market crash of 1929. It had been omitted from the 1920 census because statisticians did not think the data would be reliable. A census advisory committee had recommended that it be omitted from the 1930 schedule as well, but it had been included at the last minute by amendment by New York Democratic Senator Robert Wagner. In the months following the crash, the public and media eagerly anticipated the release of the numbers from the schedule. President Herbert Hoover, a great believer in statistics, believed that the census would "show the first real determination of unemployment" and would prove his contention that "the worst effects of the crash . . . have passed." Unfortunately for Hoover, the data from the census suggested quite the opposite. But because the statistics were collected on a separate schedule from the population count, it was difficult to calculate accurate numbers quickly. The census of unemployment would take years to cross-tabulate, and the preliminary numbers that the bureau released under media and bureaucratic pressure were widely criticized as inaccurate because the bureau had used a conservative standard.16

Unfortunately for researchers, the unemployment schedules have been destroyed, although the aggregate data from the schedules can be found in published statistical summaries that are available in many federal depository libraries. Additionally, on the census of population, respondents were asked whether they had worked the previous day, which might give researchers some evidence as to the employment status of individuals.

Taking the Census

The 1930 census was taken as of April 1, as it has been every decade thereafter. The decision to move the census date to April grew out of the problems the bureau encountered in its attempt to use January 1 in 1920. Joseph Hill wrote "the difficulties encountered in taking a census of population in the winter months convinced the Bureau that the experiment should not be repeated."17 By the standards of its day, the census of 1930 was a monumental task. It collected data regarding 122,775,046 persons, including 29,904,663 families. The city of New York alone had 6,112 enumeration districts. All the census data required 300 million punch cards. By contrast, the 1790 census had enumerated 3,929,214 people.18

In the 1930s, bureau Director William L. Austin noted that modern enumerators had more difficulties to overcome than those of 1790, despite "marvelous improvements in the means of communication and travel." Although he or she might be able to take an elevator to the twelfth floor of an apartment house, the enumerator of 1930 "is quite likely to find, when he gets there that the occupants are out. If it is the time of day when the breadwinners are not at their regular places of work and the housewife, if there is anyone who qualifies as such, is not shopping, and the children, if there are any, are not at school, then they are motoring or have gone to the ball game or the 'movies' or the amusement park." Furthermore, he wrote, it was difficult to be sure that all persons were counted accurately. "The apartment house population and more especially the shifting lodging-house population present problems of increasing difficulty in modern census taking; and the population in general is not as stable or as home-keeping as it was in the eighteenth century," he wrote. "Many changes of residence occur during the month that the census is in progress; and special precautions must be taken to make sure that the moving family is not missed altogether and is not enumerated more than once."19 Concerns regarding the mobility of the American population and the possibility of a distorted count continue to be issues for modern census takers.

After the 1930 Census

Acting Director Joseph Hill's concern about maintaining a reasonable number of questions on the 1930 census was shared by professional statisticians in his agency. As a result, for the 1940 census, statisticians at the bureau developed sampling methods that would allow the agency to ask a wide array of detailed questions of only a proportion of the population. The rest of the questions would be asked of everyone, as specified in the Constitution. However, the agency decided that in some cases, it could generate national data from the responses of a sample of the population.

The implications of this switch are fairly serious for future genealogists who will be using census records. In the 1940 census, thirty-four questions were asked of every individual aged fourteen and older. In the 1950 census this number was reduced to twenty questions, and in the 1960 census it was further cut to seven questions. Paradoxically, the bureau has maintained or increased the scope of detailed economic and social data that it has gathered during each census. In all censuses conducted after 1960, between 16 and 20 percent of the population answered questions on the agency's "long form" questionnaire.

Although researchers have long had access to the published, aggregated data from the 1930 census, people who wish to see the individual records from that census have been barred from viewing them due to federal privacy restrictions under Title 13 of the U.S. Code. On April 1, 2002, the seventy-two-year waiting period during which these records are embargoed came to an end, and individual 1930 census schedules opened to the general public. They are available on microfilm through the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C., at its thirteen regional archives across the United States, and through the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program.20


1 Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801, and Jefferson to the president and legislative council, Dec. 28, 1805, quoted in Adrienne Koch, The Great Collaboration (1950), p. 244.

2 The exception is the census of 1920, when Congress delayed reapportionment until such a late date that it was decided to wait for the results of the 1930 census.

3 Starting in 1850 the Bureau of the Census also took censuses of industry, agriculture, and mortality. The majority of the surviving nonpopulation schedules date from 1850 to 1880.

4 Carroll D. Wright and William C. Hunt, The History and Growth of the United States Census (1900).

5 Joseph A. Hill, "Legislation for the Fifteenth Census," Journal of the American Statistical Association 23 (September 1928): 322.

6 Ibid., pp. 322–323.

7 Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (1985), p. 171

8 Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929), p. 196.

9 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, "The Industrial Revolution in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century," Technology and Culture 17 (1976): 23. Cowan points out that the 1920s also saw a decrease in the use of household servants, therefore women's work in the home was becoming more "proletarian" at the same time it was elevated to a "science."

10 C. Luther Fry, "Making Use of Census Data," Journal of the American Statistical Association, New Series, No. 170 25 (June 1930): 133.

11 Sara M. Evans, Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America (1989), pp. 177, 200. The trend toward earlier marriages would be quickly reversed in the 1930s, as young people delayed marriage due to economic insecurity. By the late 1940s and 1950s, however, the average age at first marriage again dropped.

12 Fry, "Making Use of Census Data," p. 133.

13 Ibid.

14 Anyone listed as "Indian" on the 1930 census was also required to list tribal affiliation.

15 US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 200 Years of US Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790–1990 (1989), p. 60. Interestingly, in 1930 "Mexican" was categorized as a "race," while in censuses beginning in 1970, it is an "ethnicity."

16 Margo J. Anderson, The American Census: A Social History (1988), pp. 160–170.

17 Hill, "Legislation for the Fifteenth Census," 321.

18 William L. Austin, "Bureau of the Census" United States Department of Commerce. How it serves you on land and sea and in the air-a description of the various activities carried on in behalf of the American people by the branches of this service department of the federal government. (1934), pp. 3–5.

19 Ibid., p. 2.

20 For a list of NARA's regional facilities, see the last page of this magazine. Find out more about the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program at the web site, or write to National Archives Microfilm Rental Program, P.O. Box 30, 9050 Junction Drive, Annapolis Junction, MD 20701-0030.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.